My provocation is this: utopia is not the place to go looking for freedom. At least not the right kind of freedom. Ironically, I think, we should examine that which is so often associated with oppression, submission, and silence—dystopia.
The idea for this paper came to me a year ago while watching an episode of Caprica, a spin-off of Battlestar Galactica. Here, Tad (gamertag: Hercules) turns to Tamara and says:
“Look, I know this must seem really random to you, but this game—it really does mean something to me. It actually allows me to be something.”
Without pausing she fires back:
“Maybe if you weren’t in here playing this game you could be something out there, too.”
I think this exchange points to an interesting way in which the relationship between youth and the world is often cast: youth are dreamers and cultivate their online selves at the expense of their real lives. But I think that this distinction between virtual and real is growing false and that the development of youth’s relationship with the intangible has everything to do with their relationship to the real.
Truth be told, this is actually my favorite episode of the series and it takes its name from a poem, “There Is Another Sky”:
There is another sky
Ever serene and fair
And there is another sunshine
Though it be darkness there
Never mind faded forests, Austin
Never mind silent fields
Here is a little forest
Whose leaf is evergreen
Here is a brighter garden
Where not a frost has been
In its unfading flowers
I hear the bright bee hum
Prithee, my brother
Into my garden come!
All of this from a woman who would never see the garden for herself.
But that’s sort of exactly the point, right? I mean, Dickinson and Tad are my people—they are the ones who are mired in the dark and they are the ones searching for a light, something more, something better. Something like a utopia.
And what is Dickinson’s garden, really, other than a form of utopia? Hearing those words, we picture a pastoral safe haven that is admittedly different from the technological utopias that we’ve been discussing in class but definitely a vision for a world that is better.
The trouble is that our utopias rarely come alone: utopias are born out of dystopias, slide into dystopia, and maintain a healthy tension by threatening to turn into dystopias. As I’ve thought about this over the course of the semester, I have come to wonder if all utopias are in fact false for one person’s utopia is easily another’s dystopia. So we have this back and forth that is, as we have seen, instructive, but I’m most interested in the scenarios like those in Nineteen Eighty-Four and A Brave New World wherein an established utopia sets the scene for what has become a dystopian nightmare.
Somewhat like the life of a teenager. Tyler Clementi was perhaps the most high-profile case in a string of gay teen suicides that occurred in the fall of last year. At the time, I can remember being incredibly upset—not at Dharun, Clementi’s roommate—but at myself and my colleagues. “This death is, in part, on all of us,” I remember telling my peers for these are the kids that we are supposed to be advocating for and we’ve failed to change the culture that causes these things to happen. We’ve known about bullying in schools for a long time and we can make steps to alter that but we can also work to make youth more resilient.
Looking to do just that, columnist Dan Savage started a project called “It Gets Better” that attempted to convince gay youth to stick around because, well, “it gets better.” Once the initial goodwill wore off, I began to get increasingly upset at the project—not because the intent was unworthy but rather because the project showed a certain lack of understanding and compassion for those it was actually trying to help.
Telling a teenager that things will get better somehow, someday is like telling him that things will get better in an eternity because every day is like a million years. Telling a teenager your story means that you are not listening to theirs. And what about all those youth who don’t feel like they can tough it out until they can leave? They feel like failures. What you’re really after with this whole thing is hope, but I think that the efforts are misguided.
I was frustrated because this position caused youth to be passive bystanders in their own lives—that one day, they’d wake up or go off to college and things would magically get better. There might be some truth to that but what about all of the challenges that youth have yet to face? Life is hard—for everyone—and it’ll kick you while you’re down; but we need to teach our youth not to be afraid to get back up because the wrong lesson to learn from all of this is to become closed off and cynical.
So what are some of the ways that we can take a look at young adult culture and reexamine the activities that youth are already engaged in, in order to tell young people that they are valued just as they are?
For me, Young Adult fiction provides a great space in which to talk about themes of utopia/dystopia, depression, and bullying. So much more than Twilight, there was recently a discussion over this past summer on Twitter with participants employing the hash tag #YASaves. The topic was sparked in response to claims that the material in Young Adult fiction was too dark. Case in point, The Hunger Games centers on an event wherein 24 teenagers fight to the death in an arena. And I say this with the caveat that I am not a parent but I get that position—I really do. Years of interacting with parents and their children in the arena of college admission has convinced me that many parents want the best for their kids—they want to protect them from harm—but simply approach the process in a way that I do not find helpful.
Although “freedom from” represents a necessary pre-condition, it would seem that a true(r) sense of agency is the province of “freedom to.” And yet much of the rhetoric surrounding the current state of politics seems to center around the former as we talk fervently about liberation from dictatorships in the Middle East during the spring of 2011 or freedom from oppressive government in the United States. And these sound like good things, right? But here those dystopias born out of utopias are instructive for they show us what happens when “freedom from” collapses. Like “It Gets Better” which forwards its own vision of a life free from bullying, the dream rots because “freedom from” leads to a utopia—a space that, by its very nature, has no exit plan.
But, to be fair, perhaps “freedom to” has a stigma, one that Dan Savage is likely familiar with.
I imagine that there is a certain amount of disillusionment with this for “Free to Be…You and Me” has not really altered the perception that boys can have dolls or that it’s okay to cry. We are not yet truly free to be. But I would argue that it is not the concept of “freedom to” that is the issue here, it is the way in which it is defined—according to the song, it is a land where children and rivers run free in the green country.
In short, a utopia.
What if we applied what we learned from this course and instead of a place, recast utopia as a process of becoming? A dream of perpetual motion, if you will. What if we taught youth to think about how “freedom from” mirrors the language of colonialism and instead suggested that the more pertinent issue is that of freedom to? Not just freedom from censorship but freedom to protest, freedom to information and access to it, freedom to be visible, freedom to be anonymous, freedom to wonder, freedom to dream, and freedom to become. We are quickly seeing that virtual spaces are becoming hotbeds for these sorts of fights and the results of those skirmishes have a very real impact on the everyday lives of young adults. If there are teens who view high school as a war zone shouldn’t we arm them with better tactics? What if utopian described not a place but a type of person? Someone who fought accepted notions of the future and did not just wait for it to get better but challenged it, and us, to be better. Just maybe someone like a poet.
I opened with Emily Dickinson and I will return to her to close.
We’d never know how high we are
Until we’re called to rise
And then, if we are true to plan
Our statures touch the skies
Take what you’ve learned from this class and encourage youth to struggle with these notions of “freedom from” and “freedom to.” Help them rise.
QR code for Hunger Games ARG…! Scan, please, if you have a chance!
But what is reality television? Although the genre seems to defy firm definitions, we, like Justice Stewart, instinctually “know it when [we] see it.” The truth is that reality television spans a range of programming, from clip shows like America’s Funniest Home Videos, to do-it-yourself offerings on The Food Network, investigative reporting on newsmagazines like 60 Minutes, the docu-soap Cops, and many other sub-genres in between, including the reality survival competition that forms the basis for The Hunger Games. Although a complete dissection of the genre is beyond the scope of this chapter—indeed, entire books have been written on the subject—reality television and its implications will serve as a lens by which we can begin to understand how Katniss experiences the profound effects of image, celebrity, and authenticity throughout The Hunger Games.
She Hits Everyone in the Eye
For the residents of Panem, reality television is not just entertainment—it is a pervasive cultural entity that has become inseparable from citizens’ personal identity. Although fans of The Hunger Games can likely cite overt allusions to reality television throughout the series, the genre also invokes a cultural history rife with unease regarding the mediated image in the United States.
Reacting to atrocities witnessed throughout the course of World War II, Americans in the 1950s became obsessed with notions of power and control, fearing that they would be subsumed by the invisible hand of a totalitarian regime. In particular, the relatively young medium of television became suspect as it represented a major broadcast system that seemed to have a hypnotic pull on its audience, leaving viewers entranced by its images. And images, according to author and historian Daniel Boorstin, were becoming increasingly prominent throughout the 19th century as part of the Graphic Revolution replete with the power to disassociate the real from its representation. Boorstin argued that although the mass reproduction of images might provide increased levels of access for the public, the individual significance of the images declined as a result of their replication; as the number of images increased, the importance they derived from their connection to the original subject became more diffuse. And, once divorced from their original context, the images became free to take on a meaning all their own. Employing the term “pseudo-event” to describe an aspect of this relationship, Boorstin endeavored to illuminate shifting cultural norms that had increasingly come to consider the representation of an event more significant than the event itself.
Katniss unwittingly touches upon Boorstin’s point early inThe Hunger Games, noting that the Games exert their control by forcing Tributes from the various districts to kill another while the rest of Panem looks on. Katniss’ assertion hints that The Hunger Games hold power primarily because they are watched, voluntarily or otherwise; in a way, without a public to witness the slaughter, none of the events in the Arena matter. Yet, what Katniss unsurprisingly fails to remark upon given the seemingly ever-present nature of media in Panem is that the events of The Hunger Games are largely experienced through a screen; although individuals may witness the Reaping or the Tribute’s parade in person, the majority of their experiences result from watching the Capitol’s transmissions. Without the reach of a broadcast medium like television (or, in modern culture, streaming Internet video), the ability of The Hunger Games to effect subjugation would be limited in scope, for although the Games’ influence would surely be felt by those who witnessed such an event in person, the intended impact would rapidly decline as it radiated outward. Furthermore, by formulating common referents, a medium like television facilitates the development of a mass culture, which, in the most pessimistic conceptualizations, represents a passive audience ripe for manipulation. For cultural critics of the Frankfurt School (1923-1950s), who were still reeling from the aftereffects of Fascism and totalitarianism, this was a dangerous proposition indeed. Although the exact nature of modern audiences is up for debate, with scholars increasingly championing viewers’ active participation with media, Panem has seemingly realized a deep-seeded fear of the Frankfurt School. It would appear, then, that The Hunger Games function as an oppressive force precisely because of its status as a mediated spectacle of suffering.
But perhaps we should not be so hard on Katniss. Growing up in an environment that necessitated the cultivation of skills like hunting and foraging, Katniss’ initial perspective is firmly grounded in a world based on truth. Plants, for example, must be checked (and double-checked!) to ensure their genuineness, lest a false bite result in death. In order for Katniss to survive, not only must she be able to identify plants but must also trust in their authenticity; prior to her experience in the Arena, Katniss undoubtedly understands the world in rather literal terms, primarily concerned with objects’ functional or transactional value. However, as hinted by Boorstin, additional layers of meaning exist beyond an item’s utility—layers that Katniss has not yet been trained to see.
Echoing portions of Boorstin’s previous work, French philosopher Jean Baudrillard conceptualized four types of value that objects could possess in modern society: functional, transactional, symbolic, and sign. Admittedly a more complex theory than the description provided herein, we can momentarily consider how Baudrillard’s value categories of “functional” and “transactional” might align with Boorstin’s previously introduced concept of the “real,” while “symbolic” and “sign” evidence an affinity toward “representation.” Whereas the functional and transactional value of items primarily relates to their usefulness, the categories of “symbolic” and “sign” are predominantly derived as a result of the objects’ relationship to other objects (sign) or to actors (symbolic). Accordingly, being relatively weak in her comprehension of representation’s nuances, Katniss characteristically makes little comment on Madge’s gift of a mockingjay pin. However, unbeknownst to Katniss (and most likely Madge herself), Madge has introduced one of the story’s first symbols, in the process imbuing the pin with an additional layer of meaning. Not just symbolic in a literary sense, the mockingjay pin gains significance because it is attached to Katniss, an association that will later bear fruit as fans well know.
Before moving on, let’s revisit the import of The Hunger Games in light of Baudrillard: what is the value of the Games? Although some might rightly argue that The Hunger Games perform a function for President Snow and the rest of the Capitol, this is not the same as saying the Games hold functional value in the framework outlined by Baudrillard. The deaths of the Tributes, while undeniably tragic, do not in and of themselves fully account for The Hunger Games’ locus of control. In order to supplement Boorstin’s explanation of how The Hunger Games act to repress the populace with the why, Baudrillard might point to the web of associations that stem from the event itself: in many ways, the lives and identities of Panem’s residents are defined in terms of a relationship with The Hunger Games, meaning that the Games possess an enormous amount of value as a sign. The residents of the Capitol, for example, evidence a fundamentally different association with The Hunger Games, viewing it as a form of entertainment or sport, while the denizens of the Districts perceive the event as a grim reminder of a failed rebellion. Holding a superficial understanding of The Hunger Games’ true import when we first meet her, Katniss could not possibly comprehend that her destiny is to become a symbol, for the nascent Katniss clearly does not deal in representations or images. Katniss, at this stage in her development, could not be the famed reality show starlet known as the “girl on fire” even if she wanted to.
By All Accounts, Unforgettable
Returning briefly to reality television, we see that Panem, like modern America, finds itself inundated with the genre, whose pervasive tropes, defined character (stereo)types, and ubiquitous catchphrases have indelibly affected us as we subtly react to what we see on screen. Although we might voice moral outrage at offerings like The Jersey Shore or decry the spate of shows glamorizing teen pregnancy, perhaps our most significant response to unscripted popular entertainment is a fundamental shift in our conceptualization of fame and celebrity. Advancing a premise that promotes the ravenous consumption of otherwise non-descript “real” people by a seemingly insatiable audience, reality television forwards the position that anyone—including us!—can gain renown if we merely manage to get in front of a camera. Although the hopeful might understand this change in celebrity as democratizing, the cynic might also argue that fame’s newfound accessibility also indicates its relative worthlessness in the modern age; individuals today can, as the saying goes, simply be famous for being famous.
Encapsulated by Mark Rowlands’ term “vfame,” the relative ease of an unmerited rise in reputation indicates how fame in the current cultural climate has largely divorced from its original association with distinguished achievement. Although traditional vestiges of fame have not necessarily disappeared, it would appear that vfame has become a prominent force in American culture—something Katniss surely would not agree with. Recalling, in part, Kierkegaard’s thoughts on nihilism, vfame’s appearance stems from an inability of people to distinguish quality (or perhaps lack of concern in doing so), resulting in all things being equally valuable and hence equally unimportant. This, in rather negative terms, is the price that we pay for the democratization of celebrity: fame—or, more accurately, vfame—is uniformly available to all in a manner that mirrors a function of religion and yet promises a rather empty sort of transcendence. Although alluring, vfame is rather unstable as it is tied to notions of novelty and sensation as opposed to fame, which is grounded by its association with real talent or achievement; individuals who achieve vfame typically cannot affect the longevity of their success in substantial terms as they were not instrumental in its creation to begin with. Stars in the current age, as it were, are not born so much as made. Moreover, the inability of the public to distinguish quality leads us to focus on the wrong questions (and, perhaps worse, to not even realize that we are asking the wrong questions) in ways that have very real consequences; although vfame and its associated lapse in thinking might be most obvious in the realm of celebrities, it also manifests in other institutions such as politics. As a culture that is obsessed with image and reputation, we have, in some ways, forgotten how to judge the things that really matter because we have lost a sense of what our standards should be.
Born out of an early to mid-20th century society in which the concept of the “celebrity” was being renegotiated by America, concepts like vfame built upon an engrained cultural history of the United States that was firmly steeped in a Puritan work ethic. Americans, who had honored heroes exemplifying ideals associated with a culture of production, were struggling to reconcile these notions in the presence of an environment now focused on consumption. Although Katniss, as proxy for modern audiences, might initially find this shift difficult to appreciate, one need only consider that the premium placed on production is so central to American ideology that it continues to linger today: in a culture that exhibits rampant consumerism, we still value the “self-made man” and sell the myth of America as a place where anyone can achieve success through hard work. To abandon these ideas would necessitate that we reinterpret the very meaning of “America.” Thus, we become more sympathetic to the critics of the day who lamented the loss of the greatness of man and bristled against the notion that fame or celebrity could be manufactured—such a system would only result in individuals who were lacking and unworthy of their status. To this day, our relationship with celebrities is a tenuous and complex one at best, for although we celebrate the achievements of some, we continue to flock to the spectacle created by the public meltdown of others, unable or unwilling to help; we vacillate between positions of adulation, envy, contempt, and pity, ever poised for incensement but all too willing to forgive.
Perhaps it should come as no surprise that reality television puts us a little on edge, as the genre represents a fundamental blurring of fact and fiction. Celebrities, we see, are just like us—just like our neighbors, who, through the magic of reality television, can become stars! Ever-shifting classifications leave us on unstable ground. But also consider the aforementioned philosophy of Boorstin: stars are, among other things, individuals whose images are important enough to be reproduced, which causes “celebrity” to transition from a type of person to a description of how someone is represented in society. In other words, we witness a shift from a term that labels who someone is to a term that designates who someone seems to be. Celebrities, it might be argued, derive at least a portion of their power in modern culture because they embody a collection of images that has been imbued with some sort of significance. Ultimately, it seems that much of our unease with celebrity and fame centers on notions of authenticity.
All I Can Think of Are Hidden Things
Long before Katniss ever becomes a celebrity herself, she exhibits disdain for the Capitol and its residents, evidencing a particularly adverse reaction to things she considers artificial. As previously discussed, authenticity played a particular role in Katniss’ growth and her ability to survive: for Katniss, a false image literally represented an affront on the level of life or death, for a lapse in judgment could have resulted in possible electrocution or poisoning. Concordantly, Katniss dismisses the strange colors of the Capital along with the characteristic features of its citizens—stylists, in particular, are purported to be grotesque—because she is not readily able to reconcile these visuals with her established worldview. As Katniss operates on a literal level, directly associating identity with appearance, the self can only present in one way (in this case, relatively unadorned) and maintain its authenticity.
Like Katniss, we too may be tempted to summarily reject the unfamiliar; our modern anxieties might best be encapsulated by the question: What to do with a problem like Lady Gaga? Perhaps the strongest contemporary mass image that mirrors the visual impact of the stylists on Katniss (followed closely by New York socialite Jocelyn Wildenstein), Lady Gaga suffers continual criticism for her over-the-top theatrical presentations. With dresses made from meat and Hello Kitty heads, it is all too easy to write Lady Gaga as “attention-starved,” simplifying her presence to the succinct “weird.” Yet, it seems rash to write off Lady Gaga and the world of fame as nothing more than frivolity and fluff, for pop culture is only as vapid as our disinclination to engage in it.
Consider, for example, how the Capitol and its residents (of whom a prominent one would undoubtedly be Lady Gaga) embody the spirit of Decadence, a particularly prominent theme in Victorian culture. A reaction to the 19th century movement of Romanticism, Decadence championed concepts like artifice, which served to demonstrate man’s ability to rebel against, and possibly tame, the natural order. Although this inclination toward the unnatural manifested in myriad ways, French poet and philosopher Chrarles Baudelaire viewed women’s use of cosmetics as a particular site of interest, for proper application did not just enhance a woman’s beauty but acted to transform her, allowing transcendence through artifice.
With this in mind, we begin to understand the innate control wielded by figures such as Cinna and Caesar Flickman. Perceived as facile by some, these two men represent a class of individuals adept at understanding the power inherent in fame, reputation, celebrity, and appearance; in the Capitol, image mongers such as these hold sway. Although one reading of these characters plants them firmly in the realm of artifice, painting them as masters of emotional manipulation and spectacle, an alternate view might consider how these two have come to recognize a shift toward a new localized reality—one that Katniss must adapt to or perish.
And yet, despite their commonality, these two individuals also underscore fundamentally different approaches to image: Caesar (and, perhaps, by extension, the Capitol) wields his power in order to mask or redirect while Cinna endeavors to showcase a deep-seeded quality through the management of reputation and representation. Coexisting simultaneously, these two properties of illusion mirror the complimentary natures of Peeta and Katniss with regard to image. Peeta, skilled in physical camouflage, exhibits an emotional candidness that Katniss is initially unready, or unwilling, to match; Katniss, very much the inverse of Peeta, is characterized by traits associated with hunting, finding, and sight in the “real” world all while maintaining a level of emotive subterfuge. Over the course of the 74th Hunger Games, however, Katniss quickly learns to anticipate how her actions in the Arena will affect her representation and reputation beyond the battlefield. With the help of Haymitch, Katniss begins to better understand the link between a robust virtual self and a healthy physical one as she pauses for the cameras and plays up her affection for Peeta in exchange for much-needed rewards of food and medicine. As she matures, Katniss comes into alignment with Cinna and Caesar, individuals who, despite being participatory members of a system arguably deemed inauthentic, distinguish themselves from the majority of Panem by understanding how image works; Cinna and Caesar (and later Katniss) are not just powerful, but empowered and autonomous.
Herein lies the true import of Collins’ choice to weave the trope of reality television into the fabric of The Hunger Games: throughout the trilogy, the audience is continually called upon to question the nature of authenticity as it presents in the context of a media ecology. Ultimately, the question is not whether Katniss (or anyone else) maintains a sense of authenticity by participating in the games of the Capitol—trading a true self for a performed self—but rather an askance of how we might effect multiple presentations of self without being inauthentic. How does Katniss, in her quest to survive, embody Erving Goffman’s claims that we are constantly performing, altering our presentation as we attempt to cater to different audiences? Is Katniss truly being inauthentic or does she ask us to redefine the concept of authenticity and its evaluation? Struggling with these very questions, users of social media today constantly juggle notions of authenticity and self-presentation with platforms like Facebook and Twitter forming asynchronous time streams that seamlessly coexist alongside our real-life personas. Which one of these selves, if any, is authentic? Like Katniss, we are born into the world of the “real” without a ready ability to conceptualize the power latent in the virtual, consequentially resenting what we do not understand.